Profile: Martin Sheen

Movie star, activist and self-proclaimed ‘radical Catholic’ Martin Sheen’s new film is about a popular Christian pilgrimage. As he tells Christianity about his own journey of faith, he reveals a passion for theology and prayer, and a profound sense of commitment and calling to social justice. 

I don’t get starstruck easily, but in the circumstances it’s extremely difficult not to be. Martin Sheen, the iconic American actor best known for his role as fictional President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, is leaning on the window frame of his London hotel suite. Smartly dressed and well turned-out, the man retains a somewhat Presidential aura; the cavernous room bears more than a passing resemblance to the Oval office. It’s all I can do not to say ‘Good morning Mr President,’ as we’re introduced. When we do shake hands, he’s fascinated that we share the same name. He teaches me a Spanish word, ‘Tocayo’, which describes this coincidence, then perseveres with me as I refine my pronunciation. Perhaps it’s how he has learned to survive a three-day film junket, but Sheen takes an unexpected interest in me, before and after our interview. He is delighted to hear that I’m a father – news that I have three children at the age of 32 prompts him to ask excitedly: ‘Are you Catholic too?’ Then he begins obsessively quizzing me on the exact birth dates of my entire family. 

One of the great living film and television actors, Sheen appears on paper to be a fascinating interview subject. As well as an acting career that has seen him play a fair share of controversial roles (murderers and sex offenders among them), he has also been a passionate activist for a number of causes. He’s been arrested; he fell away from and was then reconverted to the Catholic faith of his youth, and he’s the head of a family that is marked both by talent and controversy. 

 

Sheen is in the UK to promote The Way, a film about an unlikely pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago (the ‘Way of St James’, a Catholic pilgramage through France and Spain walked than more than 100,000 people each year). The film is written and directed by his real-life son Emilio Estevez, who also plays the recentlydeceased firstborn of Sheen’s character, on whose behalf he is making the pilgrimage. A gentle, heartfelt road-movie-of-sorts, The Way contains strong spiritual themes, influenced in part by the family’s strong Roman Catholic heritage. Like many real life pilgrimages, it is as much about the internal journey of Sheen’s character as it is his physical journey, as he begins to rehabilitate from grief. 

Sheen launches into his first answer long before I’ve asked the first question, and has plenty to say. Halfway through, we are interrupted by the distribution company to tell us that our time is up, and that Sheen’s lunch is ready. My fate in his hands, the man is generous beyond the call of duty. ‘Lunch can wait,’ he tells them. ‘This might be the only important thing I get done today.’

I begin by asking the man born Ramon Gerardo Antonio Estevez a terribly selfindulgent question – why of all the names in the world, he chose to share mine. He laughs, then points out that he has never officially changed the name. Then he proves it, handing me his current driving licence, which still bears the Puerto Rican name of his birth. Then he insists we remember the meaning of the name which he chose and with which I was lumbered: ‘What does in mean in Latin? Isn’t it the old Anglo Saxon meaning of the name ‘warrior’?’ I nod, struck by how poorly that name seems to suit either of us. 

So when did you become ‘Martin Sheen’?

I began using the name very early when I was starting out in New York – I was 18 years old. I used ‘Sheen’ because the first televangelist in the United States was an Archbishop from New York called Fulton J Sheen, and he gave a prime time lecture, half hour, every Tuesday and he was a very popular figure. Mind you, I didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about; his theology, his politics! But his delivery was astonishing. He was a very handsome man; he had these hypnotic eyes and he was a very powerful speaker. He was self effacing, he had a great sense of humour as well, so he had great balance.

So when I went to New York, I was having difficulty with my name, Ramón Estévez; just getting around and trying to get an apartment, trying to get job interviews and such, because the Puerto Rican community at that time was taking the blame for everything wrong in New York. I loved them, and I identified with them. People in New York didn’t even realise that the Puerto Ricans were American citizens, but they were the newest immigrants and so they were to blame for everything. I fell in that category and thought, ‘Well you know, I’m having a difficult time enough just trying to get a job, I can’t have a name in the way as well,’ so I just started using this name.

A Catholic pilgrimage might not seem like an immediately obvious subject for a Hollywood movie. Why did you want to make a film about the Camino de Santiago?

I had grown up knowing about this mysterious pilgrimage, but I never really focused on it until my adult life. I started studying it when I was doing The West Wing and I thought ‘You know, that’s a possibility, I should really think about doing that pilgrimage because I’m not getting any younger.’

And then, in the summer of 2003, we’d just lost a brother, another one of my siblings. There were six of us left at that time and I invited everyone to come to my mother’s village in Ireland on May 22nd 2003 to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday. Afterwards I invited everyone: ‘Come with me to Madrid, and we’re going to suss out this journey to Santiago.’ Nobody came. But I got my grandson, Taylor, to come. And my old, dearest friend, a man I’ve known all my adult life, Matt Clark. And so Matt, Taylor and I were in Madrid, and we said, ‘How can we do the Camino in a couple of weeks?’ We thought about horseback, we thought about bikes, and then we did what any American with any ingenuity would do and we rented a car. So we drove the Camino. But we saw it, and I was intrigued enough. Along the way we stopped at Burgos at a ‘refugeo’. And Taylor met his future wife in that ‘refugeo’. And that was the first miracle, on the Camino. I came home with all these stories. Taylor went right back, and he’s been there ever since. 

I started talking to Emilio about all the things that had happened, and he got interested; began reading about it. He began to write scenarios; we’d trade stories and add things, subtract things, and he finally settled on a father-son thing and wrote the part for me – of a father whose son has died on the Camino. 

It was a fantasy, but then we came to discover how often this happens. How many parents we met along the real journey who were remembering their lost child or lost spouse. The Camino was filled with broken people who were suffering great loss and were in need of healing. Which is very typical, because again, the Camino is metaphor for life. Everyone is looking for an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. That’s what all of our lives are about, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Whether we’re involved in a higher thinking or not doesn’t matter. It’s a natural progression. All of us seek transcendence, and that’s why people walk the Camino. Pilgrimages are an effort to touch the sacred in our lives. 

Is that what the movie is about?

Our whole life’s journey is about that effort. Mind you, I didn’t make up the rules, they were there a long time before I was. But it’s very clear, and this is part of our growth as people. When we discover, when we truly understand that we are loved, by virtue of being human – that is what we might call ‘grace’ or a moment of clarity. Whether you believe in a higher power, the ‘One’, the ‘Other’, Christ, consciousness of God, whatever it is. When you come to that understanding that you are loved, everything changes. Because then you realise that every other human being on the face of the earth is yearning for that knowledge as well. And you see it in them, or you see the absence of love in them. You see it in people who don’t believe they are loved, or don’t know they are loved, or have not embraced their brokenness, their darkness – they’re still living in the shadow self. When you see the light, and it’s so clear, so obvious, you see someone who knows they are loved and they reflect love in return. Those that are broken, heal, and heal others. That’s the journey of love. That’s the journey of the Camino. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the purpose of it. That’s why we do it.

What would you say was your realisation? What was the point when you truly knew that you were loved?

Sometimes it happens in dramatic ways; people meet the love of their life or they lose it. Or they have a child, or they suffer a sickness and they survive. They begin to come to grips with the great mystery. And you surrender to the mystery, which is an affront to the ego. The ego says, ‘I’m running the show here.’ When push comes to shove, you push back. ‘I’m as important as you are here.’ And then you come to that defining kind of reality, which you can only describe as true humility. You realise that it’s not about you and you are powerless.

 That becomes a very important defining moment, because to a lot of people, particularly here in the west, powerless means nothingness, surrender, where the reverse is true. Powerlessness is surrender of the ego. When you understand and accept that you are powerless, now you become very powerful. Because you know what’s really important. You realise you’ve only been dealing with half of your being. You’ve been dealing with the physical, the material. When you understand humility, that leads you to a suppression of the ego. And you understand that all of us feel that way. We all feel broken, powerless. We’re all dealing with fear, anxiety, nothingness; and the smallness of our being.

We as Christians believe that the genius of God is in the reality of choosing to be human, choosing to be small and broken.’ That’s the most powerful thing imaginable, because that engenders community. That makes me realised I am healed, here in this reality, and I can heal others. That’s my responsibility isn’t it? That’s the thing that gives us the greatest joy. It’s sharing our darkness, our brokenness, our humanity with others and causing a change of direction in their lives, a change in temperature; healing.

You’re passionate about politics–

No! No, I’m not. Excuse me, I’m sorry to cut that off. No, I have absolutely no interest in politics per se. I will support people who run in public life for political positions, absolutely. But I do not believe that politics changes anything.

Okay... but you’re an activist.

I’m an activist, yes. But I’m an activist as an extension of my humanity. It’s part of my spiritual journey.

The outworking of your faith?

Exactly. Absolutely. I believe as Christians we are called as witnesses. If you are present with evil you must identify it and identify it in the light. You go outside and put a name on injustice. You do it publicly and that’s when it’s costly. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t do anything privately. He had, we call it, ‘a public life’. It cost him his life. Anything of value should cost you something.

When I came back to Catholicism in 1981, I didn’t come back to the old Church which I’d left, which was a gift that I loved – but for me if was gift of fear and guilt. I rejected it in my young adulthood and didn’t raise my children in any faith at all. I came back to it when I was 40. May 1st 1981, as a matter of fact.

I came back to Vatican Two, to the Church of social justice, of activism. People who were feeding the hungry, and visiting the prisoner and housing the homeless – doing justice. That’s what we’re called to do. We’re called to walk humbly and do justice, and love. That’s what being a Christian is to me. It means that you don’t keep your light under a bushel.

So politics, no – I have not the slightest interest really. It’s necessary in a lot of situations, but I have no interest in becoming involved in it per se. I have a great interest in social justice. That’s where I come into the public arena. And I don’t have any illusions about changing anyone’s mind. If I’m protesting or supporting an issue, I do it for me. It’s what I have to do because I know myself. I cannot not do it and be myself.

During the course of this conversation you’ve called yourself a Christian. When people write about you, they tend to say, ‘Devout Catholic – Martin Sheen’.

Well I’m a radical Catholic. You know radical means ‘root’. So, I go right back to the root, the old, original Church.

What does your faith look like on a day-to-day basis? Do you pray in the morning?

I do sometimes if I have the time. I try to present my day beginning with thanksgiving and praise and to let that be my prayer. I’m just now, frankly, learning how to pray. To go into a meditative spot.

One of the great things about prayer is the invitation and how scary it is to know God. Because we don’t really want to. We have to let go of a lot of fear and anxiety and trust. We want to organise our ‘God’. We want to control our ‘God’ and that makes God very small in our image. The mystery of God is so profound and so overwhelming that it takes a great measure of courage to really surrender to that sacredness, to accept the reality that you are loved.

As Teilhard de Chardin tells us, ‘When we come to the understanding that we are loved, we have discovered fire for the second time.’ I think that’s true, but I don’t want to get burned yet. I’m still there waiting. I still love to do this, and love to do that, and will I have to give them up? I love the journey.

I don’t like to fly; I’m really a very nervous traveller. I get on an aeroplane, and I’m so very nervous that I just pray intently. I get the beads out and I’m praying. ‘Please get us up off the ground. Please give us a smooth flight. Oh stop that turbulence. Oh Lord get us down and I’ll do this and that. Oh thank you Lord.’ And then I forget everything. So that went on for years. One day I was working on a location, I’d been up all day and night working; I was exhausted. I went to the airport, got in line and I was the first one on this flight. I got in my seat, buckled up and fell fast asleep. The next thing I knew there was all this noise, everything was rattling and I bolted awake and the plane was roaring down the runway and ready to take off. All I could think to say was, ‘Thank you. It’s been wonderful, I’ve enjoyed every day of it. I couldn’t have asked for more. I couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t have been more loved. I couldn’t have loved anymore. Thank you for everything, it’s been wonderful. If I don’t make it back, be present to those who will miss me the most.’ And so that’s my prayer now: ‘Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’



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